CHEO President and CEO Alex Munter called it the biggest children’s health funding announcement in provincial history.

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The Ontario government will boost children’s health-care spending by $330 million a year, a move that will give the province’s overburdened pediatric health system some badly needed relief.

Premier Doug Ford announced the new funding during a Wednesday news conference at CHEO attended by heads of every pediatric hospital and health centre in the province and other children’s health leaders.

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“This new funding will provide our front-line health-care partners with the tools they need to immediately provide more children with the care they need close to home,” Ford said.

CHEO President and CEO Alex Munter called it the biggest children’s health funding announcement in provincial history, saying it would not only expand capacity for treatment, but would help “unleash creative forces of children’s and youth organizations across the province” to improve health care for children and their families.

Children’s health care has been underfunded in Ontario for decades, pediatric health officials say, but the situation has reached crisis proportions since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2019, wait times for pediatric treatment, surgery and, especially, mental health supports have ballooned. There are 36,000 children and youth on waiting lists for appointments at CHEO alone. Two-thirds of them have waited longer than is clinically recommended.

Last fall and winter, CHEO and other children’s hospitals faced a crisis as the number of children in need of care during a severe viral illness surge overwhelmed the system. Older youths were sent to adult hospitals, but many children and their families still waited hours to be seen in emergency wards and some children were flown across Ontario for treatment.

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The crisis attracted attention to what pediatric health leaders said had been a long-standing issue. Organizations representing pediatric care have long argued that children’s health care needs to be “right-sized” to better meet the needs of a growing population with increasingly complex illnesses.

The new funding will help CHEO hire between 200 and 250 new staff members, Munter said. Province-wide, the stable funding could add 1,500 pediatric health professionals, something that could be slowed by shortages of nurses and other health workers.

CHEO, which struggled last fall during a severe viral season, has already received some funding increases to help cope with long waits in the emergency department and for critical-care beds. Munter said those investments, including new critical-care beds, would put the hospital in a better position when facing what is expected to be another severe viral season this fall.

It could take longer for full results of the major funding announcement to be felt, he said.

The new money will support everything from urgent-care clinics to reduce the pressure on pediatric emergency departments to more surgical staff to increase day surgeries, increasing access to diagnostic imaging and reducing wait times for youth to connect to mental health services, among other initiatives.

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“This funding will reduce wait lists, enhance access to critical services and ensure families receive the specialized care their children require when they need it most,” said Michael Parsa, provincial minister of Children, Community and Social Services.

The federal government committed $2 billion in federal health transfer funds to help reduce backlogs and improve children’s health care across Canada.

Emily Gruenwoldt, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare Canada, called Wednesday’s announcement “a great first step” toward improving pediatric care and said her organization wanted to see other provinces follow suit.

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